William Morris Archive

This tale telleth us that there was erewhile an Emperor of Byzance, which as now is called Constantinople; but anciently it was called Byzance. There was in the said city an Emperor; pagan he was, and was held for wise as of his law. He knew well enough of a science that is called Astronomy, and he knew withal of the course of the stars, and the planets, and the moon: and he saw well in the stars many marvels, and he knew much of other things wherein the paynims much study, and in the lots they trow, and the answers of the Evil One, that is to say, the Enemy. This Emperor had to name Musselin; he knew much of lore and of sorceries, as many a pagan doth even yet.

Now it befell on a time that the Emperor Musselin went his ways a night-tide, he and a knight of his alone together, amidst of the city which is now called Constantinople, and the moon shone full clear.

And so far they went, till they heard a Christian woman who travailed in child-bed in a certain house whereby they went. There was the husband of the said woman aloft in a high solar, and was praying to God one while that she might be delivered, and then again another while that she might not be delivered.

When the Emperor had hearkened this a great while, he said to the knight: “Hast thou heard it of yonder churl how he prayeth that his wife may be delivered of her child, and another while prayeth that she may not be delivered? Certes, he is worser than a thief. For every man ought to have pity of women, more especially of them that be sick of childing. And now, so help me Mahoume and Termagaunt! if I do not hang him, if he betake him not to telling me reason wherefore he doeth it! Come we now unto him.”

They went within, and said the Emperor: “Now churl, tell me of a sooth wherefore thou prayedst thy God thus for thy wife, one while that she might be delivered, and another while that she might be delivered not. This have I will to wot.”

“Sir,” said he, “I will tell thee well. Sooth it is that I be a clerk, and know mickle of a science which men call Astronomy. Withal I wot of the course of the stars and of the planets; therefore saw I well that if my wife were delivered at the point and the hour whereas I prayed God that she might not be delivered, that if she were delivered at that hour, the child would go the way of perdition, and that needs must he be burned, or hanged, or drowned. But whenas I saw that it was good hour and good point, then prayed I to God that she might be delivered. And so sore have I prayed God, that he hath hearkened my prayer of his mercy, and that she is delivered in good point. God be heried and thanked!”

“Well me now,” said the Emperor, “in what good point is the child born?”

“Sir,” said he, “of a good will; know sir, for sooth, that this child, which here is born, shall have to wife the daughter of the emperor of this city, who was born but scarce eight days ago; and he shall be emperor withal, and lord of this city, and of all the earth.” “Churl,” said the Emperor, “this which thou sayest can never come to pass.” “Sir,” said he, “it is all sooth, and thus it behoveth it to be.” “Certes,” quoth the Emperor, “‘tis a mighty matter to trow in.”

But the Emperor and the Knight departed thence, and the Emperor bade the Knight go bear off the child in such wise, if he might, that none should see him therein. The Knight went and found there two women, who were all busied in arraying the woman who had been brought to bed. The child was wrapped in linen clothes, and they had laid him on a chair. Thereto came the Knight, and took the child and laid him on a board, and brought him to the Emperor, in such wise that none of the women wotted thereof. The Emperor did do slit the belly of him with a knife from the breast down to the navel, and said withal to the Knight, that never should the son of that churl have to wife his daughter, nor be emperor after him.

Therewithal would the Emperor do the Knight to put forth his hand to the belly, to seek out the heart; but the Knight said to him: “Ah, sir, a-God’s mercy, what wouldst thou do? It is nought meet to thee, and if folk were to wot thereof, great reproach wouldst thou get thee. Let him be at this present, for he is more than dead. And if it please thee that that one trouble more about the matter, I will bear him down to the sea to drown him.” “Yea,” quoth the Emperor, “bear him away thither, for right sore do I hate him.”

So the Knight took the child, and wrapped him in a cover-point of silk, and bore him down toward the sea. But therewith had he pity of the child, and said that by him should he never be drowned; so he left him, all wrapped up as he was, on a midden before the gate of a certain abbey of monks, who at that very nick of time were singing their matins.

When the monks had done singing their matins, they heard the child crying, and they bore him before the Lord Abbot. And the Abbot saw that the child was fair, and said that he would do it to be nourished. Therewith he did do unwrap it, and saw that it had the belly cloven from the breast down to the navel.

The Abbot, so soon as it was day, bade come leeches, and asked of them for how much they would heal the child and they craved for the healing of him an hundred of bezants. But he said that it would be more than enough, for overmuch would the child be costing. And so much did the Abbot, that he made market with the surgeons for four- score bezants. And thereafter the Abbot did do baptize the child, and gave him to name Coustans, because him-seemed that he costed exceeding much for the healing of him.

The leeches went so much about with child, that he was made whole and the Abbot sought him a good nurse, and got the child to suckle, and he was healed full soon; whereas the flesh of him was soft and tender, and grew together swiftly one to the other, but ever after showed the mark.

Much speedily waxed the child in great beauty; when he was seven years old the Abbot did him to go to the school, and he learned so well, that he over-passed all his fellows in subtilty and science. When he was of twelve years, he was a child exceeding goodly; so it might nought avail to seek a goodlier. And whenas the Abbot saw him to be a child so goodly and gentle, he did him to ride abroad with him.

Now so it fell out, that the Abbot had to speak with the Emperor of a wrong which his bailiffs had done to the abbey. The Abbot made him a goodly gift, whereas the abbey and convent were subject unto him, for the Emperor was a Saracen. When the Abbot had given him his goodly gift, the Emperor gave him day for the third day thence, whenas he should be at a castle of his, three leagues from the city of Byzance.

The Abbot abode the day: when he saw the time at point to go to the Emperor, he mounted a-horseback, and his chaplain, and esquire, and his folk; and with him was Coustans, who was so well fashioned that all praised his great beauty, and each one said that he seemed well to be come of high kindred, and that he would come to great good.

So when the Abbot was come before the castle whereas the Emperor should be, he came before him and spake to and greeted him: and the Emperor said to him that he should come into the castle, and he would speak with him of his matter: the Abbot made him obeisance, and said to him: “Sir, a-God’s name!” Then the Abbot called to him Coustans, who was holding of his hat while he spake unto the Emperor; and the Emperor looked on the lad, and saw him so fair and gentle as never before had he seen the like fair person. So he asked of the Abbot what he was; and the Abbot said him that he wotted not, save that he was of his folk, and that he had bred him up from a little child. “And if I had leisure with thee, I would tell thee thereof fine marvels.” “Yea,” said the Emperor; “come ye into the castle, and therein shalt thou say me the sooth.”

The Emperor came into the castle, and the Abbot was ever beside him, as one who had his business to do; and he did it to the best that he might, as he who was subject unto him. The Emperor forgat in nowise the great beauty of the lad, and said unto the Abbot that he should cause him come before him, and the Abbot sent for the lad, who came straightway.

When the child was before the Emperor, he seemed unto him right fair; and he said unto the Abbot, that great damage it was that so fair a lad was Christian. But the Abbot said that it was great joy thereof, whereas he would render unto God a fair soul. When the Emperor heard that, he fell a-laughing, and said to the Abbot that the Christian law was of no account, and that all they were lost who trowed therein. When the Abbot heard him so say, he was sore grieved; but he durst not make answer as he would, so he said much humbly: “Sir, if God please, who can all things, they are not lost; for God will have mercy of his sinners.”

Then the Emperor asked of him whence that fair child was come; and the Abbot said that it was fifteen years gone since he had been found before their gate, on a midden, all of a night-tide. “And our monks heard him a-crying whenas they had but just said matins; and they went to seek the child, and brought him to me; and I looked on the babe, and beheld him much fair, and I said that I would do him to be nourished and baptized. I unwrapped him, for the babe was wrapped up in a cover-point of vermil sendel; and when he was unwrapped, I saw that he had the belly slit from the breast to the navel. Then I sent for leeches and surgeons, and made market with them to heal him for four-score bezants; and thereafter he was baptized, and I gave him to name Coustans, because he costed so much of goods to heal. So was the babe presently made whole: but never sithence might it be that the mark appeared not on his belly.”

When the Emperor heard that, he knew that it was the child whose belly he had slit to draw the heart out of him. So he said to the Abbot that he should give him the lad. And the Abbot said that he would speak thereof to his convent, and that he should have him with their good-will. The Emperor held his peace, and answered never a word. But the Abbot took leave of him, and came to his abbey, and his monks, and told them that the Emperor had craved Coustans of him. “But I answered that I would speak to you if ye will yea-say it. Say, now, what ye would praise of my doing herein.”

“What!” said the wisest of the convent; “by our faith, evil hast thou done, whereas thou gavest him not presently, even as he demanded of thee. We counsel thee send him straightway, lest the Emperor be wrath against us, for speedily may we have scathe of him.”

Thereto was their counsel fast, that Coustans should be sent to the Emperor. So the Abbot commanded the Prior to lead Coustans thereto; and the Prior said: “A-God’s name!”

So he mounted, and led with him Coustans, and came unto the Emperor, and greeted him on behalf of the Abbot and the convent; and then he took Coustans by the hand, and, on the said behalf, gave him to the Emperor, who received him as one who was much wrath that such a runagate and beggar churl should have his daughter to wife. But he thought in his heart that he would play him the turn.

When the Emperor had gotten Coustans, he was in sore imagination how he should be slain in such wise that none might wot word thereof. And it fell out so that the Emperor had matters on hand at the outer marches of his land, much long aloof thence, well a twelve days’ journey. So the Emperor betook him to going thither, and had Coustans thither with him, and thought what wise he might to do slay him, till at last he let write a letter to his Burgreve of Byzance.

“I Emperor of Byzance and Lord of Greece, do thee to wit who abidest duly in my place for the warding of my land; and so soon as thou seest this letter thou shalt slay or let slay him who this letter shall bear to thee, so soon as he hast delivered the said letter to thee, without longer tarrying. As thou holdest dear thine own proper body, do straightway my commandment herein.”

Even such was the letter which the fair child Coustans bore, and knew not that he bore his own death. The lad took the letter, which was close, and betook him to the road, and did so much by his journeys that he came in less than fifteen days to Byzance, which is nowadays called Constantinople.

When the lad entered into the city, it was the hour of dinner; so, as God would have it, he thought that he would not go his errand at that nick of time, but would tarry till folk had done dinner: and exceeding hot was the weather, as is wont about St. John’s-mass. So he entered into the garden all a-horseback. Great and long was the garden; so the lad took the bridle from off his horse and unlaced the saddle-girths, and let him graze; and thereafter he went into the nook of a tree; and full pleasant was the place, so that presently he fell asleep.

Now so it fell out, that when the fair daughter of the Emperor had eaten, she went into the garden with three of her maidens; and they fell to chasing each other about, as whiles is the wont of maidens to play; until at the last the fair Emperor’s daughter came under the tree whereas Coustans lay a-sleeping, and he was all vermil as the rose. And when the damsel saw him, she beheld him with a right good will, and she said to herself that never on a day had she seen so fair a fashion of man. Then she called to her that one of her fellows in whom she had the most affiance, and the others she made to go forth from out of the garden.

Then the fair maiden, daughter of the Emperor, took her fellow by the hand, and led her to look on the lovely lad whereas he lay a- sleeping; and she spake thus: “Fair fellow, here is a rich treasure. Lo thou! the most fairest fashion of a man that ever mine eyes have seen on any day of my life. And he beareth a letter, and well I would see what it sayeth.”

So the two maidens drew nigh to the lad, and took from him the letter, and the daughter of the Emperor read the same; and when she had read it, she fell a-lamenting full sore, and said to her fellow: “Certes here is a great grief!” “Ha, my Lady!” said the other one, “tell me what it is.” “Of a surety,” said the Maiden, “might I but trow in thee I would do away that sorrow!” “Ha, Lady,” said she, “hardily mayest thou trow in me, whereas for nought would I uncover that thing which thou wouldst have hid.”

Then the Maiden, the daughter of the Emperor, took oath of her according to the paynim law; and thereafter she told her what the letter said; and the damsel answered her: “Lady, and what wouldest thou do?” “I will tell thee well,” said the daughter of the Emperor; “I will put in his pouch another letter, wherein the Emperor, my father, biddeth his Burgreve to give me to wife to this fair child here, and that he make great feast at the doing of the wedding unto all the folk of this land; whereas he is to wot well that the lad is a high man and a loyal.”

When the damsel had heard that, she said that would be good to do. “But, Lady, how wilt thou have the seal of thy father?” “Full well,” said the Maiden, “for my father delivered to me four pair of scrolls, sealed of his seal thereon; he hath written nought therein; and I will write all that I will.” “Lady,” said she, “thou hast said full well; but do it speedily, and haste thee ere he awakeneth.” “So will I,” said the Maiden.

Then the fair Maiden, the daughter of the Emperor, went to her coffers, and drew thereout one of the said scrolls sealed, which her father had left her, that she might borrow moneys thereby, if so she would. For ever was the Emperor and his folk in war, whereas he had neighbours right felon, and exceeding mighty, whose land marched upon his. So the Maiden wrote the letter in this wise:

“I King Musselin, Emperor of Greece and of Byzance the city, to my Burgreve of Byzance greeting. I command thee that the bearer of this letter ye give to my fair daughter in marriage according to our law; whereas I have heard and wot soothly that he is a high person, and well worthy to have my daughter. And thereto make ye great joy and great feast to all them of my city and of all my land.”

In such wise wrote and said the letter of the fair daughter of the Emperor; and when she had written the said letter, she went back to the garden, she and her fellow together, and found that one yet asleep, and they put the letter into his pouch. And then they began to sing and make noise to awaken him. So he awoke anon, and was all astonied at the fair Maiden, the daughter of the Emperor, and the other one her fellow, who came before him; and the fair Maiden, daughter of the Emperor, greeted him; and he greeted her again right debonairly. Then she asked of him what he was, and whither he went; and he said that he bore a letter to the Burgreve, which the Emperor sent by him; and the Maiden said that she would bring him straightway whereas was the Burgreve. Therewith she took him by the hand, and brought him to the palace, where there was much folk, who all rose against the Maiden, as to her who was their Lady.

Now the Maiden demanded the Burgreve, and they told her that he was in a chamber; so thither she led the lad, and the lad delivered the letter, and said that the Emperor greeted him. But the Burgreve made great joy of the lad, and kissed the hand of him. The Maiden opened the pouch, and fell a-kissing the letter and the seal of her father for joy’s sake, whereas she had not heard tidings of him a great while.

Thereafter she said to the Burgreve that she would hearken the letter in privy council, even as if she wotted nought thereof; and the Burgreve said that that were good to do. Then went the Burgreve and the Maiden into a chamber, and the Maiden unfolded the letter and read it to the Burgreve, and made semblance of wondering exceedingly; and the Burgreve said to her, “Lady, it behoveth to do the will of my lord thy father, for otherwise we shall be blamed exceedingly.” The Maiden answered him: “And how can this be, that I should be wedded without my lord my father? A strange thing it would be, and I will do it in no manner.”

“Ha, Lady!” said the Burgreve, “what is that thou sayest? Thy father has bidden thus by his letter, and it behoveth not to gainsay.”

“Sir,” said the Maiden, (unto whom it was late till the thing were done) “thou shalt speak unto the barons and mighty men of this realm, and take counsel thereof. And if they be of accord thereto, I am she who will not go against it.” Then the Burgreve said that she spake well and as one wise.

Then spake the Burgreve to the barons, I and showed them the letter, and they accorded all to that that the matter of the letter must be accomplished, and the will of the Emperor done. Then they wedded the fair youth Coustans, according to the paynim law, unto the fair daughter of the Emperor; and the wedding endured for fifteen days: and such great joy was there at Byzance that it was exceeding, and folk did no work in the city, save eating and drinking and making merry.

Long while abode the Emperor in the land whereas he was: and when he had done his business, he went his ways back towards Byzance; and whenas he was but anigh two journeys thence, came to him a message of the messengers who came from Byzance. The Emperor asked of him what they did in the city; and the varlet said that they were making exceeding good cheer of eating and drinking and taking their ease, and that no work had they done therein these fifteen days.

“And wherefore is that?” said the Emperor. “Wherefore, Sir! Wot ye not well thereof?” “Nay, forsooth,” said the Emperor, “but tell me wherefore.”

“Sir,” said the varlet, “thou sentest a youngling, exceeding fair, to thy Burgreve, and badest him by thy letter to wed him to thy daughter the fair, and that he should be emperor after thee, whereas he was a man right high, and well worthy to have her. But thy daughter would not take that before that the Burgreve should have spoken to the barons. And he spake to all them, and showed them thy letter; and they said that it behoved to do thy commandment. And when thy daughter saw that they were all of one accord thereon, she durst not go against them, but yea-said it. Even in such wise hath thy daughter been wedded, and such joy has been in the city as none might wish it better.”

The Emperor, when he heard the messenger speak thus, was all astonied, and thought much of this matter; and he asked of the varlet how long it was since the lad had wedded his daughter, and whether or no he had lain by her?

“Sir,” said the varlet, “yea; and she may well be big by now; because it is more than three weeks since he hath wedded her.” “Forsooth,” said the Emperor, “in a good hour be it! for since it is so, it behoveth me to abide it, since no other it may be.”

So far rode the Emperor till he came to Byzance, whereas they made him much fair feast; and his fair daughter came to meet him, and her husband Coustans, who was so fair a child that none might better be. The Emperor, who was a wise man, made of them much great joy, and laid his two hands upon their two heads, and held them there a great while; which is the manner of benison amongst the paynims.

That night thought the Emperor much on this marvel, how it could have come about; and so much he pondered it, that he wotted full well that it had been because of his daughter. So he had no will to gain-say her, but he demanded to see the letter which he had sent, and they showed it unto him, and he saw his seal hanging thereto, and saw the letter which was written; and by the manner whereby the thing had been done, he said to himself that he had striven against the things which behoved to be.

Thereafter, the Emperor made Coustans a knight, even his new son who was wedded unto his daughter, and he gave and granted to him all the whole land after his death. And the said Coustans bore him well and wisely, as a good knight, and a valiant and hardy, and defended him full well against his enemies. No long time wore ere his lord the Emperor died, and his service was done much richly, after the paynim law. Then was Coustans emperor, and he loved and honoured much the Abbot who had nourished him, and he made him his very master. And the Emperor Coustans, by the counsel of the Abbot, and the will of God the all mighty, did do christen his wife, and all they of that land were converted to the law of Jesus Christ. And the Emperor Coustans begot on his wife an heir male, who had to name Constantine, who was thereafter a prudhomme much great. And thereafter was the city called Constantinople, because of his father, Coustans, who costed so much, but aforetime was it called Byzance.

Here withal endeth the Story of King Coustans the Emperor.

The said story was done out of the ancient French into English by William Morris.

Text courtesy of The University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection. Transcribed from the 1896 George Allen edition.


The Tale of Emperor Coustans

affiance: reliance, confidence
alboun: ready
aloof: away from
anighttide: at night
apparelled: prepare
array, arraying: prepare, preparing
astonied: astonished
bailiff: officer
behight: promised
benison: blessing
bezant: gold coin
burgrave: governor
Byzance: Byzantium
carl: man
certes: certainly
chequers: games boards
churl: peasant
clerk: scholar 
close: sealed
coffers: strongbox, drawers
Constans: costly
convent: monastery
cover-point: covering cloth
damage: a pity
debonairly: in a kind spirit, courteously, gracefully
durst: dared
erstwhile: once
esquire: squire
fast: definite
feigning: deceit
felon: evil
heried: honoured
journey: day’s march
leech: doctor
lighted down: alighted
lore: learning
Mahoume: Mohammed
marches: reaches, ares of land
marched upon: adjoined
master: advisor
matins: morning service
meet: appropriate
mickle: much
midden: dung-heap
nick: moment
obeisance: bow
paynim: pagan 
point: time
privy council: advisors
prudhomme: knight, freeholder, important man
runagate: renegade 
St. John’s-mass: birthday of St. John the Baptist; 24th June
Saracens: Muslims
sagely: wisely
scathe: harm, trouble
science: knowledge
sendel: thin silk
sithence: since
solar: living room
sooth: truth
sorceries: magic
subtilty, subtilly: skill, skilfully
travailed: suffered
Termagaunt: a violent deity ascribed to Islam by medieval Christians
trow, trowed: believe, believed
varlet: common man, attendant 
vermil: red
warding: guarding, controlling
whenas: when
whereas: because
withal: also
wot, wotted: know, knew
yea-say: agree
youngling: young man

A Tale of Over Sea

accorded: agreed
apparelled: prepared
aright: rightly
array: place, decorate, arrange
atonement: compensation
attemperly: gradually
avail: use, value 
baron: feudal lord
behest: demand
caitif: captive
chaffer: trade
chamberlain: steward
conjure: beg
cross: vow to go on a Crusade
damosel; young woman
debonairly: fairly, in a kind spirit
dight: arrange, prepare 
dole: lament
dolour: sorrow
doubted: feared, repented  
gentil, gentle: well-born
garnish: supply
glaive: lance, spear
hallow: saint
havings: possessions
heavy: worried, sorrowful 
heed: help
ire: anger
Latiner: speaker of Latin, scholar 
lead: bring
lighted down: alighted
maugre: despite
meney, meyney: service, staff 
misease: discomfort
much: very
naysay: deny
palfrey: light saddle-horse
quean: woman
quick: alive
renied: denied
raiment: clothing
Salahadin: Saladin
Saracens: Muslims
semblance: appearance
sergeant: attendant
sheared: cut through
sithence: since  
shoon: shoes
sooth: truth
Soudan: Sultan
stave: board
stour: fight
strong-thieves: robbers
sumpter-beast: packhorse
sundering: dividing
the Apostle: the Pope
the tables: folding boards for games like backgammon
the Temple: the Knights Templar, a military order which played a large part
in the Crusades, took its name from the Temple of Solomon
trow: believe
tun: barrel
truss: pack
uncovered: disclosed
upso down: upside down
varlet: servant, common man
ward: guard, govern
wasted: laid waste
wend: go
what hap: what shall happen to 
whenas: when
whereas: because
wile: skill
wise: way
wit: intelligence
wot: know